on the hill

While some sound alarm, pro-Israel members call for measured approach on judicial reform

Menendez said, ‘when those decisions are final, we’ll judge,’ while Wasserman Schultz said she is ‘confident that a steadfast majority’ of Democrats will continue to advocate for Israel

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during President Joe Biden's remarks to highlight Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding for the Hudson River Tunnel project at West Side Yard gate.

Amid a public outcry from some lawmakers on the left over the new Israeli government’s moves towards passing sweeping judicial reform policies, several pro-Israel Democrats are urging a more measured approach.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Wednesday that he’s planning to wait and see how the policy changes ultimately shake out.

“Like every country, Israel has its own democracy, it’s finding its own way. I look forward to seeing what its ultimate decisions are,” Menendez told Jewish Insider on Wednesday.

Menendez indicated that he sees colleagues’ stated concerns about the consequences of the policies as premature.

“Israel is a democracy, it makes its own decisions; when those decisions are final, we’ll judge whether or not that’s the case,” the New Jersey senator said, referring to the claims from fellow lawmakers that the proposed reforms would undermine Israeli democracy and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) told JI yesterday that she is “confident that a steadfast majority of my Democratic colleagues will continue to advocate for Israel’s security and further the unbreakable bond between our two nations” and pledged to continue her own “strong advocacy” because “the relationship is too important for both of our nations’ interests.”

Wasserman Schultz expressed some reservations about the judicial proposals while praising the ongoing public debate in Israel — which has included protests by tens of thousands of Israelis and a call from Israeli President Isaac Herzog for compromise.

“Defending Israel doesn’t mean defending everything Israeli policymakers do,” she said. “The strength of our partnership is predicated on our shared values of democracy and mutual respect. While I’m concerned that those values aren’t being fully represented by some of the new government’s policies, I do see them clearly in the robust civic engagement and dialogue that is taking place across the country regarding the more controversial initiatives.”

“I remain hopeful that the democratic process in Israel will result in policies that represent the values for which Israel has always been proud to uphold,” the Florida lawmaker continued.

Other pro-Israel members — including Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY) — shared with JI recently that they take a similar view: that the U.S.-Israel relationship is more durable than disagreements over particular governing coalitions or policies. Freshman Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) told JI he is also going to “wait and see,” adding that supporters of Israel need to “fight for democracy there” and warning the Israeli government against actions that could give “credibility” to international criticisms of Israel.

But other Democrats are taking a different approach, joining those arguing that the judicial reforms could undermine Israeli democracy and the U.S.-Israel relationship. A number of prominent Democrats have spoken out on the issue in recent weeks, most recently including No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin (D-IL), and some longtime members including Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Adam Schiff (D-CA).

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, explained to JI on Wednesday that he “of course” has concerns, calling the judicial reforms “alarming” and the settlement expansion “indefensible.”

“They’ve taken a turn in a very dangerous direction and I think lots of American Jews are deeply, deeply, concerned,” Schatz told JI.

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is strong, and will continue to be strong,” the Hawaii senator continued. “But it has to be based on shared values… I think that the prime minister needs to understand that the American Jewish community is increasingly uncomfortable with the actions he’s taken, and that can get in the way of a friendship.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said in a statement that the settlement expansion plans are “deeply concerning.” Murphy chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism subcommittee.

“Under the new coalition government, this appears to be just the beginning of a policy of unprecedented expansion of settlements explicitly intended to expand Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Murphy said, warning that “the implementation of these extreme policies will make it increasingly difficult to maintain the broad bipartisan consensus that has sustained Israel’s security for over 70 years.”

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden called for “consensus for fundamental changes” to Israel’s judiciary and called an independent judiciary part of “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy.”

Menendez has been more vocal about some issues in private, reportedly warning Netanyahu last year that working with far-right ministers could undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship, according to Axios. Menendez assured Jewish leaders in a closed-door meeting that he had not leaked that information to the press.

Another pro-Israel stalwart in the Senate, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), reportedly requested privately not to meet with some far-right officials on a recent delegation to Israel, according to Axios, but has downplayed the request publicly.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) told a meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America’s leadership last week that she disagreed with the judicial reforms and had heard on the delegation trip, which she joined, that local and civil society leaders are “very worried that it would destroy the democracy of Israel,” but also said it was not her place to weigh in on internal Israeli deliberations. Gillibrand told JI that Netanyahu assured U.S. lawmakers that he, not far-right ministers, was in command of the government.

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